Opening Nights: Don Giovanni, A New Musical

No missteps, but no revelations either, in this Mozart update.

To understand why some operas retain their hold on audiences—or their "relevance," to use the currently popular buzzword that makes so much classical-music punditry sound like outtakes from old Room 222 scripts—you need to look not to specifics, but to the general. Why is Carmen still popular? Because we've all had Gypsy girlfriends who've dumped us for toreadors? No, because we all know what unrequited love is, and we've all suffered can't-live-with-'em, can't-live-without-'em syndrome. This explains not only why works hundreds of years old stay fresh, but why, if you recognize and respect their dramatic core, they're mutable enough to endure any sort of adaptation; why both traditional and avant-garde productions can pack a punch; and why Jesse Smith's new musical version of Don Giovanni works on its own terms but also represents a great deal of wasted potential. The very timelessness and indestructibility of the tale of the archetypal womanizer brings a risk: If anyone can do anything to it and pull it off, how are you going to make your mark? Far from an updating or reimagining, Jesse Smith's musical is a scene-by-scene remake of Mozart's opera. The setting is preserved (Spain in an indeterminate age of chivalry), and Smith simply swaps in his own music and lyrics for Mozart's arias and ensembles. The show is thus more analogous to, say, Gus Van Sant's verbatim remake of Psycho than Amy Heckerling's film translation of Emma into Clueless. Smith's original inventions are very few—most memorably a burlesque-flavored song sung by the friends of the bride Zerlina, encouraging her, when the Don moves in on her, to go ahead and get a little on the side. It's a fine idea, which left me hoping for more of Smith's own take on the source material. Or, on the other side of the coin, for more sly mutations of Mozart's music, like Smith's effective borrowing of the opera's two powerful opening chords for his own overture. (His piece is scored for drums, cello, clarinet/sax, and himself at the keyboard.) Modelling Mozart so closely did teach Smith a valuable lesson about musical-theater storytelling—the efficacy of division of labor. Just as Mozart forwards his narrative in swift recitative and uses arias as expressive soliloquies, so Smith's score largely alternates between soft-rock ballads ('70s Broadway-style, somewhat in the Godspell/Pippin mode) for his characters' moments of reflection and tripping patter songs in 6/8 time when he needs to get through some plot points. He brings the piece in at less than 90 minutes, and he tells the story tightly and cleanly. The cast is game and likable, and nothing about the show doesn't come off—but nor is any new light shed on a rich subject that's fascinated dramatists, poets, and musicians for centuries. Is it fair to judge a piece for not matching my expectations? Probably not, but I can warn you not to go in with the same ones.

 
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